Topsy-Turvy Fleets in East Asia

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Topsy-Turvy Fleets in East Asia

Is a revolution in Taiwan’s naval strategy taking place? Enterprise will be needed to create a sea-denial fleet.

Naval development in East Asia is upending longstanding assumptions about how navies are built and how they fight. Last month, Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou personally attended the commissioning of two of the Republic of China Navy’s (ROCN) new Kuang Hua VI fast patrol boats. The units joined Hai Chiao (Sea Dragon) Squadron 1.

Ma’s presence was more significant than it might appear. In fleets aimed at winning ‘command of the sea,’ which historian Alfred Thayer Mahan provocatively defines as ‘overbearing power’ that sweeps enemy fleets from vital expanses, small craft like the Kuang Huas are usually seen as small potatoes. Such low-prestige vessels are barely worth a chief executive’s time. Ma’s presence at the commissioning ceremony ceremonies may—and hopefully does—signify that a revolution in Taiwanese naval strategy is gathering steam.

Friends of Taiwan should hope Kuang Hua squadrons are only the first stage of the revolution, not its endpoint. The reason the ROCN needs to remake its fleet, strategy, and operational practices is simple. Mainland China long declined to contest Taiwanese command of the sea. Consequently, the Taiwan Navy thought of itself as a smaller version of the US Navy—a fleet that could confront its major adversary in toe-to-toe battle with reasonable confidence of victory. With the advent of the Deng Xiaoping era, however, Beijing decided to devote some of China’s burgeoning wealth to a great navy. As the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy) grew to prominence starting in the 1990s, Taipei’s assumption that a ROCN founded on major warships could slug it out with its main antagonist became increasingly dubious.

But navies are conservative institutions enamoured of big, glamorous men-of-war. Cultural transformation is especially tough for them. The ROCN officer corps, accordingly, has been slow to accept this painful new reality. The island is now the weaker party to the cross-strait maritime competition. To remain independent, Taiwan needs a naval strategy of the weak aimed at denying the PLA Navy command of important waters. Large numbers of stealthy, missile-armed craft dispersed around the island’s rugged perimeter could render the Taiwan Strait a no-go zone for any Chinese invasion force. That President Ma has taken personal interest in reinventing ROCN strategy bodes well. He must keep the pressure on, lest the effort flag.

The Kuang Huas represent a step in the right direction, but they underperform relative to their Chinese counterparts, the Type 022 Houbei fast attack craft. The new ROCN craft aren’t especially stealthy, their armament is lighter, and their ability to handle rough seas is doubtful. Taipei must therefore press ahead with the new generation of small craft that’s reportedly under development, and it must develop a cadre of skippers skilled at fighting without the benefit—and the constraint—of centralized command and control. Enterprise and daring will be the cardinal virtues for a Taiwan Navy sea-denial fleet.

Interestingly, a Taiwan Navy that excels at small-unit tactics would invert the standard way of thinking about the composition of navies. This year marks the centennial of probably the finest work on this subject, Sir Julian Corbett’s Some Principles of Maritime Strategy. Corbett partitions navies into the battle fleet, the heavy ships that win command from rival fleets through major fleet actions, and the ‘flotilla’—the numerous smaller, more lightly armed, longer-range ships that exercise maritime command. In a sense, Ma is prodding the ROCN to deemphasize—and perhaps ultimately discard—the battle fleet. Swarms of Kuang Hua VI boats and their successors would assume responsibility for combating a Chinese offensive. They would take on the PLA Navy, relegating major surface combatants like destroyers and frigates to a supporting role.

China, too, is turning the usual thinking about the makeup of fleets on its head. Like the ROCN, the PLA Navy evidently envisions using the flotilla as the primary weapon against its chief nemesis, in this case the US Pacific Fleet. The Taiwan Navy worries mostly about the waters adjoining its shores. PLA Navy commanders are thinking bigger—and they are the beneficiaries of a growing panoply of land-based weaponry that can project power out to sea. To date, Beijing has confined its interests mainly to the China seas and the Western Pacific, within range of shore-fired weapons. Chinese commanders can combine these systems with short-range warships like diesel submarines and Houbei catamarans, vessels Corbett would probably classify as part of the flotilla rather than the battle fleet. The product: a formidable implement for sea denial, or ‘access denial’ to borrow the Pentagon’s term.

Sea denial, then, may spare the Chinese surface fleet the need to fight the US Navy, its principal adversary. It can exploit command of the sea without winning it—taking on the functions Corbett foresaw for the flotilla. Such a strategy may also let Beijing get by with a more modest battle fleet. It need not build symmetrically against the US Navy. It simply needs to outmatch regional navies like the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force and the Southeast Asian navies—navies also vulnerable to sea-denial strategy. This is a relatively manageable challenge. The logic of sea denial will take on new complexity, however, should China opt for a standing naval presence in the Indian Ocean. If the PLA’s antiship ballistic missile pans out, the Pentagon estimates it can strike throughout the Bay of Bengal and parts of the Arabian Sea from Chinese soil. On the other hand, Chinese mariners venturing into the Indian Ocean must contend with India, another ambitious sea power that can attempt some sea denial of its own.

Chinese and Taiwanese maritime fortunes thus may turn on what were traditionally viewed as secondary assets. If these two topsy-turvy fleets perform efficiently—denying each other and other navies access to vital waters and skies—these waters could become a no-man’s land for battle fleets in wartime. Figuring out how to defeat enemy flotillas is job one for navies operating in maritime Asia.


James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College.The views voiced here are his alone.